Downton Abbey and the English Garden

Well a year has come and gone and a new year is upon us.  For the third year in a row the New Year also brings us a new season of Downton Abbey.   The third season begins this Sunday, January 6th, on PBS.  Along with the intriguing story line and great interiors we are also treated to wonderful views of the landscape surrounding the great English manor house, Highclere Castle.

Downton Abbey has used Highclere Castle to film the exterior shots since the series began.  It seems the creators of the show are enchanted by Highclere Castle location and frequently include wonderful shots of long views within the estate parkland.   This is understandable since HighclereCastle estate sits on 1,000 acres and dates back to the 8th century.

Charles Barry designed Highclere Castle and building began in1839.  Charles Barry also designed the Houses of Parliament in London.  You can’t help but notice the resemblance.  The Estate is presently owned by the Carnavon family who acquired it in 1679 from the Bishops of Winchester who had owned the Estate for 800 years.

Before I go over the landscape, I want to go over some of the historical details of the grounds of Highclere Castle.

The 1,000 acre parkland was original designed by Capability Brown at the end of the 18th century.  Capability Brown was a proponent of the more relaxed English garden style and designed close to 170 garden parks and fine country estates.  His style broke away from the traditional formal garden style popular in France.  Capability Brown’s design style attempted to mimic nature; trees and ponds were scattered throughout the landscape.  In addition to the parkland and arboretum, the present garden also contains The Secret Garden and Monks’ Garden.

The current owners, Lady Carnavon and the 8th Earl of Carnavon oversee the Highclere Castle gardens.  The owners not only maintain the original scheme but also actively add to the garden.

The first season of Downton Abbey begins in 1912, at this time the garish display of Victorian bedding plants was out of fashion.  The trend was a more relaxed ‘country house’ style of herbaceous borders and rambling roses.  Lady Carnavon adheres to this relaxed Edwardian garden style in her new planting.

As early as the 13th century fruit trees were planted in the garden.  Today fruit trees (peach, nectarine and quince) can be found trained on the brick garden walls.  Roses, blue and white Agapanthus, Lavender and Penstemons have been added to the undulating borders of The Secret Garden.  Rose varieties include ‘Penny Lane’, Alberic Barbier’ and ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.  Giant white-flowered mophead Hydrangeas also can be found in The Secret Garden.

If you want to capture the feeling of an English garden, regardless of the size of your own garden, there are several key elements to keep in mind.


Use a large variety of plant varieties even in small flowerbeds.  Shrubs and perennials of the same variety should not be planted in masse.  If you do plant in masse, use varieties that seem wild.

Plant perennials that do not need trimming.  Instead choose those that ramble through the border.  Remember that you want to avoid the ‘designer’ look and lean towards a more natural feeling.

Eliminate straight rows and geometric planting patterns for trees and shrubs.  Plant in odd numbers to get away from symmetry and rigid formality.

Pathways and planing beds should be curved.  Avoid straight lines and square beds.  Even hedges should be allowed to grow in a more natural style.

If you decide on using sculpture in the garden, choose something that looks aged.  The piece should be pastoral and peaceful, not new and modern.

Even if we do not live in a grand English estate set in acres of rolling parkland we can still use key design ideas that embrace Capability Brown’s time tested theories.  These ideas can be used regardless of the garden size or location.

In the mean time, with the long winter nights ahead of us, its great to sit back, relax and watch the drama unfold on Downton Abbey.  Once the series has run its course we will be that much closer to spring and spending time in our own gardens.